Last-minute gifts for grads? Check out the ZDNet Edu Gift Guide

It's easy to find creative gifts for grads that will be appreciated for years to come.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

This Memorial Day weekend, I went to one graduation party and my own son is graduating next weekend. It's grad season and there are some great gifts available that are both useful and affordable, whether the graduate is wrapping up high school or heading to into the job market with a stack of student loans to pay off. These items are in order by price, from lowest to highest. However, they're all pretty awesome, so even the least expensive gift won't feel cheap. And you won't find a single tablet on this list. Tablet accessories? Yes. Actual tablets? What grad isn't going to be getting a tablet this year? Here are some gifts they probably won't be getting.

1. Their own domain name

As most readers know, I've been teaching a course with Richard Byrne and Angel Maiers called "So You Wanna Be a Leader" on WizIQ. It's directed at teachers who want to step outside the classroom and take on writing, speaking, and consulting gigs to advance educational leadership. However, most of the content could be used by anyone looking to lead in our fields and I'd love to believe that this year's crop of grads wants to do just that.

The point here is that a key part of leadership, cheesy as it sounds, is personal branding. This tends to be a lesson learned later in life, but a $10 domain name can put a grad on the road to leadership when they're ready. College kids are forming startups left and right, entrepreneurship is long from dead, and opportunities to do amazing things with technology abound. When they make it big, they'll need domain names and by the time they realize they need them, the names they want will be gone.

Don't make the domain superawesome2012grad.com, either. Make it as close to their name as you can - there is no more timeless brand than their name and this will make an interesting start to what is hopefully a long and fruitful career. If nothing else, it will make a great resume site.

2. Anime and manga creation software (No, seriously)

I recently had the chance to test out anime and manga creation software from Smith Micro. The Debut (essentially "Lite") versions of Anime (Windows and Mac) and Manga Studio (Mac only) are only $49.99 each, are fairly user friendly (they require some exploring, but a whole bunch of grads have a last summer on their hands to do just that), and utterly beg users to have fun and be creative. I like Japanese cartoons and comics in the way that the average geek is bound to. It's just plain fun. The number of ardent anime fans out there is pretty remarkable, though, and, chances are, at least one grad who needs a unique gift will appreciate these applications.

The beauty of both of these programs is that they can be used for more than just making straight Japanese cartoon derivatives. They're both impressive bits of design software that be used for a variety of visual communication needs but bring a fun, Asian flair to the table that will even set a dry PowerPoint deck apart from the crowd. You can even do South Park-style animations with Anime Studio. What grad wouldn't like that?

Next: #3-5 - pulling out the big guns for the kids you really like »

3. Anything from Tuff-Luv

I can say with a fair amount of assurance that a whole lot of tablets, smartphones, and ultrabooks will be going to grads this year. Hopefully college graduates will be walking into a job and will snag themselves that tablet they've been eyeing up. More than a few students heading to college will be giving thought to forgoing a PC completely in favor of a tablet. Regardless of what they're getting or
where they're getting it, the device will need protection and my favorite company that makes this sort of thing is Tuff-Luv. In fact, I like them enough that when my dog ate a leather case cover for my Motorola Xoom (the Xoom survived unscathed) that I'd received as an evaluation unit, I went out and bought another one.

They sent me over a couple of new models to test recently and I think that even my dog would have had a tough time destroying the Saddleback Leather iPad Case that's on my new iPad now. And my oldest son carries his iPad in the new Cleanpad to school every day - he needs the built-in cleaning tool. Big time.

Prices listed on the site are in British Pounds, but range from around $15 for a basic pouch carrier on up for their nicest leather cases.

4. Gunnar Optiks computer glasses

My Gunnar computer glasses ("Advanced computer eyewear" as the company calls them to distinguish them from their gaming glasses, outdoor lenses, and 3D lenses) fall into what we at ZDNet call "dead-finger tech". You know, those items that you'd need to pry out of someone's cold, dead hands before they'd give them up?

I spend as much as 15 hours a day in front of a screen and it takes a toll on the eyes. They get dry, they water (believe it or not, those two things are related), they blur. Colors run together, as do the words. I do this for a job, primarily, but students do it for work, play, and study. The advent of electronic textbooks means that everything from Facebook to studying is done in front of a screen, while notes get taken in class on a tablet or laptop.

Sure, we could go back to dead tree books and live by the 20-20 rule (take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to let your eyes focus around the room), but most likely, our students' screen time will only increase in the coming years. All of this leads me to a great gift if you have between $80 and $150 for a budget (these are for the kids you really like). Gunnar computer glasses do wonders for eye strain, dry eyes, and all the other symptoms of excessive screen time. Images and words on-screen pop with absolute clarity and you can throw that 20-20 rule out the window (not that you should, but you can). They should be on every student's packing list for college and really need to be used to appreciate what a difference they make.

5. An Adobe Creative Cloud subscription

Creative Cloud is one of the most compelling offerings (in terms of price, value, and included software) to ever come out of Adobe, known for expensive, pro-level software. A Creative Cloud subscription makes software costs from arguably the premier creative software company in the world far more manageable. Creative Cloud isn't just for artists and design types either. Here's why.

Creative Cloud is a subscription service available for as little as $30/month for students. It includes download access to the entire newly-released Creative Suite 6 Master Collection (everything from Photoshop to Premiere Pro to Dreamweaver). Artists, designers, developers, and just about anyone with an inkling of creativity can find something really useful here. PowerPoint and Word, frankly, aren't enough to communicate effectively and compellingly any longer and even the most stoic engineering student needs to be able to communicate visually with a broad audience, both technical and otherwise.

Creative Suite also integrates with Adobe's inexpensive Touch Apps, which support everything from rapid prototyping of web sites to sketching and drawing to photo manipulation, meaning that picture an archaeology student captured of a dig site on her iPad can be touched up, saved in the cloud, and immediately available in Photoshop and Premiere for the documentary she's creating on ancient Mayan ruins (or whatever). That same student can then create a rich website around the documentary without any coding using Muse (also included free with the Creative Cloud subscription) and post the site and videos to one of 5 web sites she can host through Adobe, thanks to her Cloud subscription (and access the data included in the so-called "Business Analytics" platform). She can even use the domain name she got from Aunt Sally.

The software included is incredibly robust and will meet the creative needs of virtually any student as they head for college. And you can make one heck of a resume in InDesign, complete with semi-automatic "liquid layouts" to make it (or any other digital content created with the Suite) viewable on a variety of tablets and smartphones.

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